Color Emotions

urbrainondrugs's picture

Entering any art museum, you will walk down many white washed walls with brightly colored canvases mounted upon them. In the abstract section you will most likely pass a canvas that consists of only two or three large blocks of intense color painted upon it. Looking at these colored blocks, you may or may not experience a sense of sunniness, coolness, tenseness, or relaxation. This is a typical reaction to the works of Mark Rothko[1]. Rothko’s art, using alternately radiant and dark colors, is distinguished by the sustained concentration on pure pictorial properties such as color, surface, proportion, and scale, in order to inspire in his audience profound themes such as tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime. His images are known to provoke raw human experiences, or what we have learned are primary experiences. Not only do his paintings evoke emotional states, they will not evoke the same emotion in everyone. How is Rothko able to achieve such a reactions and why do the reactions vary? I wish to look at this question from a biological and color-centric point of view, disregarding the I-function’s affect on creativity and variability in the brain.

Before we can entertain this question, we must first understand how we are able to see colors. The retina is a thin neural sheet at the back of the eye that contains photoreceptors called rods and cones. Between the retina and the optic nerves leading to the brain are a series of cells that create a lateral inhibition network of the light/dark signals from the photoreceptors[2]. This “in between” actually filters away a lot of extra information generated by the photocells and gives the brain a "picture" of the edges of light and dark. These contrasts form a boundary while the brain to fills in the rest. This is how we see black and white; color vision is even more complex. Cones, light adapted photoreceptors, contain three different photo-pigments, red, blue, and green, each corresponding to a particular wavelength of light[3]. Color is actually made of a ration of three things: the ratio of red/green activation, blue response, and value or lightness of the light waves entering the eye[4]. The brain analyzes each of these visual inputs and generates a color.


About 80% of the information which we assimilate through our senses is visual, and a very important aspect of our visual experience is color. However, color does more than just give us objective information about our world-it affects how we feel. Now understand how the color sensing mechanisms of the eye and brain work, we can look at another phenomenon of color, which is its effect on our emotional states. I believe that the nervous impulses that allow us to see colors do not only travel to the brain but that a small percentage travel to the pituitary and pineal glands through the hypothalamus. It is logical to assume that the things that we see, especially in color, can affect the systems of the body. Psychologists and physiologists believe this to be true and have been investigating this type of phenomenon for quite some time.

In class we talked about trying to capture the “pure primary experiences” of a person. We defined a primary experience that is "felt" unconsciously and as a feeling that occurs before one tries to identify it with something or analyze it. Once analyzed a feeling becomes a conscious experience. There are many artists who try to capture such feelings or intuitions through art, such as with the Mark Rothko painting. There are specific colors associated with different emotions and feelings. The most common are red, yellow, and blue. Red, which has been found to stimulate the adrenal glands and therefore associated with anger and hunger; yellow, which has been found to stimulate the brain and activate the lymph system and therefore associated with clear thinking and expediency; and blue, which has been found to lower blood pressure and therefore associated with relaxation and calm[5]. These color associations are ingrained from early life, and with life experience these colors may change. There is still not much known about how these associations come about, although the ideas have been implemented for years (i.e. chormotherapy), however such associations allow us to understand why seeing certain colors painted with such intensity and placed next to each other, could evoke two emotional states: a primary experience and then a conscious experience. This however, does not explain why two different art patrons will feeling opposing emotions when both staring at the same painting. To explain this we must look at the processing of colors themselves.

A very significant and interesting aspect of vision is in its biology. When we see colored objects, while the object is generated due to reality, the color of the object is not technically generated due to physical reality. When light strikes an object in absorbs most of the wavelengths of light, but those that it reflects correspond to the color one sees. For example, when light hits a tomato, it absorbs all wavelengths of light except for red light, which is reflected and then perceived by the eye[6]. This is based on the fact that light consitst of all colors. A deeper analysis shows that this explanation is not necessarily true, red is not always red. Referring to the earlier description of the anatomy of color vision one should note that there are not the same number of photopigments in the eye as there are number of colors. In fact, the color "red" is not produced only by light of "red" wavelength. There are the three different photopigments (red, blue, green) in the eye, and it is actually the activation ratio between each of these pigments that generates the unique signal, which our brain will determine as "red"[7]. However, when seen this way, color is actually a mental construct and prone to variability due to the I-function and experience, and therefore, everyone views color differently. This explains why two people, or even the same person may feel different emotions when looking at one painting. Our innate variability and individuality allow us to perceive light waves differently person to person and over time. Color is only a mental construct. Color associations are able to change over time allowing one person to feel different emotions when confronted with the same color.

Although there is not enough hard evidence yet, the world seems to be slowly accepting the idea that colors can affect our bodies and our moods. Colors allow us to experience the world on a new level and seem to extend our senses to a new level. We can experience emotions by simply looking a simple rectangle or color and in fact even change emotions by doing so; such is the power of color association. It is something that defines our world and as long as we understand within the vast variability of the human mind, it is something that should be looked into with vigor.

[1] Rothko quote: "The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.. the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point."

[2] “Eye Anatomy”. St. Lukes: cataract and Laser Institute. Online [Available]. 2007 May 7.

[3] Nathans, Jeremy. “How Do We See Colors?” Breaking the Code of Color. Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

[4] MacEvoy, Bruce. “Geometry of Color Perception”. Handprint: Color Vision.

[5] An interesting thought I stumbled upon is that the McDonald’s color scheme was made so because red color stimulates hunger while yellow causes a expedient tendency, therefore you would be hungry, buy your food, and then feel rushed from and leave. Voila! Fast food :)


[6] “How the Eye sees Color”. Color Matters- Vision.

[7] Nathans, Jeremy. “How Do We See Colors?” Breaking the Code of Color. Howard Hughes Medical Institute.



Alicia's picture

I found this so helpful while

I found this so helpful while writing a lesson plan on colour in costuming to help students understand how audiences may react to the colour chosen for a character's garb. Thank you!

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